Just be­cause it’s ve­gan doesn’t mean it’s healthy

Veganism has never held such cul­tural ca­chet, but ‘plant-based’ isn’t nec­es­sar­ily short­hand for good for you. As fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese and doughnuts get the ve­gan treat­ment, WH puts their nutri­tion la­bels un­der the mi­cro­scope

Women's Health (UK) - - EAT SMART - words LAURA POTTER photography MITCH PAYNE

Swing by on any evening of the week and you’ll find Tem­ple Of Sei­tan jump­ing. It’s Thurs­day and the mouth­wa­ter­ing aroma of fried chicken hangs in the air, ta­bles are crowded and trays are piled high with burg­ers, sticky wings, mac ’n’ cheese and loaded fries. It could be any fast food joint – ex­cept for the fact that no an­i­mals were harmed in the mak­ing of th­ese meals. ‘Peo­ple think ve­g­ans just eat hum­mus and av­o­ca­dos, but look at this place,’ says Kate, 22, tak­ing a bite out of her burger. She pauses to swal­low, and her friend Amy chimes in. ‘I wouldn’t have been seen dead in Mcdon­ald’s when I ate meat, but this place is eth­i­cal, so it’s cool.’ This is veganism 2.0. The mung bean-munch­ing, ul­tra-alt rep­u­ta­tion long held by ve­g­ans is no more. There are now more than 3.5 mil­lion plant-based eaters in the UK, a 700% spike since 2016, and ve­gan bar­be­cu­ing was mar­ket an­a­lyst Min­tel’s lead­ing food and drink trend this sum­mer. Su­per­mar­kets are chasing the ve­gan pound by stock­ing aisles with an­i­mal-free foods that scream con­ve­nience. Con­sumer re­search group Kan­tar says spend­ing on ve­gan foods in Jan­uary 2018 – in­clud­ing meat alternatives like plant-based sausages and burg­ers – was up £30 mil­lion year-on-year. Waitrose has broad­ened its veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan range by 60% and Tesco has even hired a di­rec­tor of plant-based in­no­va­tion.

But while go­ing ve­gan used to be an en­deav­our that ne­ces­si­tated get­ting more cre­ative in your own kitchen – swap­ping the beef in your stir-fry for tofu, or nav­i­gat­ing your way around an aubergine – now, veganism has jumped into bed with fast food. ‘Chicken’ made from a pro­tein called sei­tan; ‘pulled pork’ made from jack­fruit and mac­a­roni in a cashew­based ‘cheese’ sauce – it’s all up for grabs. The ve­g­ans of Manch­ester are lap­ping up bas­kets of plant-based burg­ers, hot dogs and fries at V Rev; in Bris­tol, you can chase a ve­gan bur­rito with cheesy na­chos at VX; over in Leeds, Ve­gan Fried Chicken has be­come wildly pop­u­lar, while The Burger Gar­den in Sh­effield is dish­ing up its savoury fried faves with freak­shakes – blended non-dairy ice cream and ve­gan whipped cream topped with Oreo bis­cuits or de­con­structed banof­fee pie, plus lash­ings of sticky straw­berry sauce. An­i­mal product or oth­er­wise, the nu­tri­tion­ally savvy know that white re­fined carbs and highly salty food is not the way – so why is it we’re all feast­ing on this junk like it’s any dif­fer­ent from the stuff you’d find un­der the Golden Arches?

The greapre­tendetr

‘For too long, veganism has been seen as a bit wor­thy, but new-gen ve­g­ans refuse to com­pro­mise on in­dul­gence and fun,’ says Amy Thorne, co-founder of food awards group The Young Bri­tish Food­ies. ‘Now, you can eat ve­gan and still be the life and soul of the party.’ Which is all well and good – if you know what’s go­ing on in the kitchen. Of the ve­gan junk food out­lets WH ap­proached for their nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion, none were forth­com­ing. So it’s on you to un­pick the type of pro­cesses that go into turn­ing one of your five-a-day, like jack­fruit (a re­la­tion of the fig), into the kind of fin­ger-lick­ing fare you’d sell your nan for on a hang­over.

Let’s start with ve­gan ‘chicken’, aka sei­tan, the rise and rise of which is down to Tem­ple Of Sei­tan owner and in­no­va­tor Pat O’shea. The former Mel­bour­nite be­moaned the lack of ex­cit­ing ve­gan foodie op­tions when he moved to Lon­don, be­fore he started sell­ing fun ’n’ filthy an­i­mal-free eats from a food truck, which then turned into a restau­rant – and spawned a host of copy­cats. Cov­ered in bread­crumbs and nes­tled among pickles, rel­ish and ve­gan cheese, a sei­tan ‘fil­let’ looks ap­petis­ing enough. But how it comes about? By wash­ing the starch from wheat dough to leave you with in­sol­u­ble gluten, an elas­tic mass which is shaped, fried and cus­tom­ar­ily served up with sugar-laden sauces. Tasty, yes; good for the body, not so much. ‘It has some iron and some B vi­ta­mins, but not in great quan­ti­ties and, cer­tainly as a meat

‘I’ll ab­sent-mind­edly work my way through a pack of Oreos – just be­cause they’re ve­gan’

re­place­ment, nu­tri­tion­ally it’s not as ben­e­fi­cial,’ says di­eti­tian So­phie Medlin.

‘If you were to slice your sei­tan and throw it in a stir-fry, it wouldn’t be un­healthy, but once it’s been flavoured and had lots of sodium added and things like sta­bilis­ers and binders, then it be­comes a highly pro­cessed food – and that’s not some­thing you should be in­clud­ing in your diet. You could ar­gue that it’s even more pro­cessed than the av­er­age high street burger, be­cause at least the chicken or beef, though not likely to be high qual­ity, is closer to its nat­u­ral form.’

Im­poster syn­drome

Then there’s mac ’n’ cheese. Any chance switch­ing from dairy to a ve­gan al­ter­na­tive up­grades this from junk food to healthy fare? Not re­ally. Di­eti­tian and BDA spokesper­son Anna Groom points out that while a serv­ing of dairy-free ‘cheese’ may be lower in calo­ries than, say, Ched­dar, the sat­u­rated fat and salt con­tent tend to be higher. Ve­gan cheeses are of­ten made from cashews, which are full of good stuff, such as vi­ta­mins E, C and B6, along with min­er­als like mag­ne­sium and zinc. But to turn those raw ker­nels into melted cheese atop mac in­volves a ton of pro­cess­ing. ‘The cashews are con­verted into nut milk, strained to form a solid mass, then flavoured, po­ten­tially with a lot of salt. There will also be a lot of ad­di­tives like emul­si­fier and set­ting agents used to change the tex­ture,’ says Medlin.

The un­for­tu­nate con­se­quence is that the di­etary prow­ess of cashews doesn’t trans­late to the plate. It’s a sim­i­lar story with jack­fruit. ‘A starchy car­bo­hy­drate, sim­i­lar to a potato, it nat­u­rally con­tains vi­ta­mins A, C and B6, along­side es­sen­tial min­er­als,’ ex­plains Medlin. But, if you’re in the UK, you’re not pluck­ing it from the tree – Bri­tish ve­g­ans are go­ing nuts for the tinned va­ri­ety. Its stringy, su­per-ab­sorbent con­sis­tency means, when paired with a good mari­nade, it does a de­cent im­pres­sion of pulled pork, but valu­able nu­tri­ents can be lost dur­ing the tin­ning process, es­pe­cially vi­ta­min C. ‘It’s just car­bo­hy­drate drowned in su­gary sauce,’ adds Medlin. ‘A por­tion of ve­gan “pulled pork” can con­tain 10% of your sugar RDA and a third of your rec­om­mended salt in­take.’ And that’s be­fore you add any sides.

Adam Stans­bury, aka the Plant Pow­ered PT (the­p­lant­pow­eredpt.com), is trou­bled that ve­gan junk food en­joys a ‘health halo’ at odds with the bad rep of equiv­a­lent meat-laden dishes. ‘It’s disin­gen­u­ous to sug­gest that a ve­gan diet is au­to­mat­i­cally healthy. If you’re eat­ing triple-cooked chips and deep­fried fake meat, it’s no dif­fer­ent from go­ing to Mcdon­ald’s.’ Yet many be­lieve ve­gan junk to be su­pe­rior. ‘Psy­cho­log­i­cal mar­ket­ing hooks into your emo­tions, mo­ti­va­tion, iden­tity and core be­liefs,’ ex­plains Me­lanie Phelps, char­tered coun­selling psy­chol­o­gist and prac­ti­tioner for the Na­tional Cen­tre for Eat­ing Dis­or­ders. ‘With ve­gan fast or pro­cessed foods, this can be as sim­ple as claim­ing the product is plant-based, or­ganic or eth­i­cally sourced. When the con­sumer chooses what they be­lieve to be a su­pe­rior product, they feel su­pe­rior about their choice.’ That a nu­tri­tion­ally savvy ve­gan will eat a dough­nut just be­cause it’s plant­based high­lights some­thing ex­perts call ‘re­straint the­ory’. ‘It sug­gests that when we overly re­strict food and food groups, we will most likely end up eat­ing un­healthily in terms of both the vol­ume and types of food,’ says Dr Meg Ar­roll, char­tered psy­chol­o­gist and author of The Shrinkol­ogy So­lu­tion (£9.99, Quadrille). In other words, em­bark on a diet that ne­ces­si­tates draw­ing up ‘can eat’ and ‘can’t eat’ columns and if some­thing falls into the former, you’re more likely to eat it. Take WH Com­mis­sion­ing Editor Roisín Dervish-o’kane, 27, who, within weeks of try­ing out plant-based life, was pick­ing up pack­ets of Oreos and Bour­bon bis­cuits

(both ve­gan, FYI) with her weekly shop. ‘I’ve al­ways tried to eat mind­fully, if not healthily, but be­cause I can eat th­ese treats within the pa­ram­e­ters of a ve­gan diet, I’m ab­sent­mind­edly snack­ing my way through pack­ets at a time, de­spite know­ing they’re do­ing noth­ing for me nu­tri­tion­ally.’ It’s likely a driv­ing fac­tor be­hind the rise of stacked soya burg­ers and triple-fried bean chilli cheese fries. So if you’re chow­ing down more calo­ries and re­fined carbs than you ever did be­fore, take note. ‘If your mo­ti­va­tion for di­etary change is pri­mar­ily for health, and a ve­gan diet is com­pro­mis­ing your nutri­tion, then it’s time to step back and think about what a healthy and sus­tain­able diet re­ally looks like to you,’ says Dr Ar­roll.

Fast food aside, the sim­ple fact still stands that tran­si­tion­ing to a ve­gan diet without the cor­rect advice can be detri­men­tal to health – some­thing Imo­gen Curry, 30, found out first-hand last year. ‘I’m a qual­i­fied PT and have un­der­taken nutri­tion cour­ses, so I thought, with the help of savvy In­sta­gram scrolling and in­ter­net re­search, I could de­sign a sat­is­fac­tory ve­gan diet for my­self – but I was wrong,’ she re­calls. ‘I was ob­sessed with get­ting enough pro­tein, but ended up over­load­ing on fats and carbs through sheer bore­dom. My meals were pro­cessed ve­gan sub­sti­tutes along­side rice and broc­coli.

Yes, I lost weight, but I wasn’t sleep­ing well

‘What­ever your di­etary choices, take con­trol of your nutri­tion and learn how to cook’

and my mood and en­ergy lev­els were ter­ri­ble, mak­ing me binge when­ever I crashed. In the early days, I’d even turn to meat and dairy prod­ucts. I knew it wasn’t sus­tain­able, so I sought help from PT Adam Stans­bury and now my diet has com­pletely changed. I un­der­stand my pro­tein needs and get plenty from tofu, beans and the ve­gan pro­tein shake I have each day. I’m eat­ing way more fruits, veg­eta­bles and dif­fer­ent flavours – and I’m leaner and stronger.’

‘Ve­gan blog­gers and In­sta­gram­mers need to stop send­ing the mes­sage that a plant-based diet is in­her­ently per­fect,’ says Medlin. ‘There are risks – the main one be­ing vi­ta­min B12 de­fi­ciency. The hu­man body can­not func­tion without it. Early signs of de­fi­ciency are a tin­gling in your fin­gers and toes, a lack of con­cen­tra­tion and mood changes, but even­tu­ally it can lead to para­noia and delu­sions.’ You’ll find B12 in plant-based milks, soy prod­ucts and break­fast ce­re­als that have been for­ti­fied with it, not fake chicken and ve­gan cheesy chips. And if you want hard ev­i­dence to help you side­step said chips, re­search in

The Amer­i­can Jour­nal Of Clin­i­cal Nutri­tion has shown that eat­ing two or three por­tions of French fries – or any fried potato – a week can dou­ble your risk of mor­tal­ity.

Swap them for pota­toes cooked any other way and the as­so­ci­a­tion dis­ap­pears.

Keep­ing it real

Of course, the odd bit of ‘dirty munch’ won’t kill you, but the fact that it’s plant-based doesn’t make it any wor­thier, so fo­cus in­stead on mak­ing your ev­ery­day diet as bal­anced as pos­si­ble. ‘What­ever your di­etary choices, you need to take con­trol of your nutri­tion and learn to cook, rather than re­ly­ing on con­ve­nience prod­ucts,’ says Stans­bury. ‘Eat an ar­ray of dif­fer­ent-coloured fruits and veg­eta­bles, plan, prep and cook. Have a ve­gan dough­nut or a ve­gan pizza once a week if you want to, but don’t rely on them. Ev­ery­thing in mod­er­a­tion – in­clud­ing mod­er­a­tion. It’s no dif­fer­ent from the advice I would give to peo­ple eat­ing meat.’ And choose your pro­tein sources wisely.

‘Soy is a good source and pro­vides all of your amino acids,’ says Medlin. ‘And lupin beans have a sim­i­lar nu­tri­tional pro­file to peanuts – they’re more of a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring food than, say, sei­tan, so have a bet­ter bal­ance.’

Nutri­tion­ist Alice Mack­in­tosh be­lieves that tem­peh, an In­done­sian sta­ple that, like tofu, is made from fer­mented soy­beans – but with the whole bean re­tained – is an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated win­ner. ‘Tem­peh is a great choice in terms of over­all health, of­fer­ing a com­plete pro­tein source along­side fi­bre, min­er­als and vi­ta­mins,’ she says. ‘I still wouldn’t rec­om­mend tem­peh as your only pro­tein source, but, as far as meat re­place­ments go, it’s the best choice.’ And so to our old friend, the aubergine.

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